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The Real Minerva
By Mary Sharratt

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More Books
A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen

.Daughters of the Witching Hill
.The Vanishing Point
.Bitch Lit
.Summit Avenue

for The Real Minerva

"This second book from Sharratt (after Summit Avenue) is both lively and memorable, and also a reminder that it is possible to craft a good, old-fashioned novel from the most basic elements. . . . This is a well-researched and entertaining period piece. The rural Minnesota of 80 years ago may not be an obvious place to mine for literary treasure, but Sharratt proves otherwise."
—Susan Coll, Washington Post Book World

"Though fulminant nostalgia prompted me to open Mary Sharratt's The Real Minerva, a novel set in Minnesota in 1923, it soon dispersed and I was gripped by the animal gratification that only a well-wrought melodrama can deliver. Congenial to modern tastes in its feminist sensibilities, the novel is a good old-fashioned story of perfidy, villainous conduct, and small-town censoriousness against which three heroines, each doughty in her own way, strike back. The details of life in 1920s Minnesota are well rendered and the sense of how oppressive a small town can be is in the best Minnesota tradition. But the reason I recommend this to anyone who is just moping around is that it is a 'good read,' the best tonic there is."
—Katherine A. Powers, The Boston Globe

Sharratt's luminous second novel captivates the reader from the first page with an intriguing tale of three strong women who struggle against the repression of both the town and the times they live in.
—Deborah Donovan, BookPage

Entertaining go-girl fiction, sort of a less sentimental Fried Green Tomatoes.
—Christina Schmitt, City Pages

It's a good read and one which encapsulates a world which has gone forever, thank goodness.
—Mary Vernon, Townsville Bulletin, Australia

Compelling reading.
—Marie Bruni, The Daily Star, Oneonta, New York

"Once again, Sharratt takes on difficult subjects--class differences, violence against women, small town conformity--and places them in a bygone era to tell a story that is powerful and haunting. She understands well the shackles that can bind a woman's life, but also the courage and strength that can ultimately lead to freedom."
—Booksense: Barb Wieser, Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, Minneapolis

"Native Minnesotans cherish their sepia-toned collective memories of early-1900s life in the state: harsh winters, warm hearts, stoic Scandinavians in clean overalls and scrub-faced children sitting in front of the chokecherry bushes eating fresh rhubarb pie.

"In The Real Minerva, Minneapolis-bred writer Mary Sharratt seeks, if not to dispel that mythology, at least to muddy it up a bit. Sharratt sets her story in the 1920s small town of Minerva, Minn., where gossip destroys people's lives, where predatory gangs of men storm isolated farms intent on rape and mayhem, and where a wise woman knows how to use a gun. The cornstalks, Holsteins and blackberries are familiar, but the stalking, the contraceptives and the Mexican day laborers are a departure from the canon.

"Sharratt spins her story around three of Minerva's female residents. Barbara Niebeck is a single mother and domestic worker for the patrician Hamilton family. She falls into a pattern of paid sex with the family patriarch while his wife dies slowly and unconsciously in a nursing home. Barbara hoards the money Mr. Hamilton leaves behind after their assignations, but seems slow to realize he is developing real feelings for her. Penny is Barbara's resentful daughter. She wears the castoff clothing of her peer Irene Hamilton and must also weather Irene's casual insults. 'Your mother named you Penny,' Irene says, 'because she's cheap, and so are you.' The third woman, Cora Egan, left her abusive husband in Illinois when she became pregnant and is holed up alone at her family's farmhouse on the outskirts of town.

"Their stories interplay as Penny, disgusted with her mother's affair with Mr. Hamilton, runs away. Remembering an overheard conversation, she bicycles out to Cora's farm to seek work. She finds Cora in the midst of delivering her own baby. Penny calls a doctor, who insists that Penny stay on a while to help Cora with baby care and housework. The two women hit it off eventually, as Cora's self-protective gruffness gives way and Penny becomes intrigued by the older woman's intellectualism and free-spirited attitude. Barbara is bereft and wonders if she will ever reconnect with her daughter while her affair with Mr. Hamilton screeches toward disaster.

"Barbara, Penny and Cora all exist in a state of suspended desperation; their lives are closing in on them.

"In her elegant and detailed writing, Sharratt builds her Minerva as a place the reader can touch and smell. And the obstacles walling off these women's futures are real, too.

"As much as Sharratt might try to sully Minnesota Nice and rewrite history with feminist hindsight, The Real Minerva is ultimately an engrossing tale of good-hearted people who seek their solace in hard physical labor. That's hardly the anti-Wobegon that Sharratt might have wished, but it's enfolded in a good story that many readers should enjoy."
—Cherie Parker, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"It's 1923 in the little town of Minerva, Minnesota, and young Penny is distraught because her mother, Barbara, is sleeping with the man for whom she cleans house. But the woman who really has the farming community's tongues wagging is Cora Egan, a Chicago society woman who has fled a bad marriage.

"When Penny decides to run away, she finds herself at Cora's isolated farmhouse. Cora is in labor, and Penny delivers the baby. Cora, Penny and the child bond, and Penny finds she loves living on the quiet farm with mother and child. When Penny, who has only an eighth-grade education, stumbles upon a copy of the Odyssey, she is riveted. She realizes she can be a warrior like Athena/Minerva.

"Meanwhile, Penny's mother is distraught when Penny doesn't return. She's been cold to her daughter, and she doesn't like sleeping with her employer. But she has to survive. She also hasn't told Penny that she was conceived in incest.

"When Cora's brother and estranged husband turn up at the farm, Penny does what she must to save her friend. There is a body, and blood, and someone ends up an outlaw in Mexico. In the end, the three women reinvent themselves.

"Mary Sharratt, who grew up in Bloomington, worked her way through the University of Minnesota, saving enough money to spend her junior year in Germany. She moved to Austria on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1988 and then lived in Germany for 12 years. She lives now in England's Lancashire countryside but returns often to teach at the Loft and visit family.

"Sharratt wrote her widely praised first novel, Summit Avenue, during 'empty evenings' when she was living in Austria. Published by Minneapolis-based Coffee House Press, Summit Avenue is one of the press' all-time bestsellers. The book, in its third printing, is about a woman who finds love with another woman in the Twin Cities just before World War I.

"Sharratt says The Real Minerva began when she was camping in Chilean Patagonia (where her character Cora is born). The town of Minerva is based partly on Glencoe, Minnesota, where Sharratt's grandmother lived, and Cora's farm grew out of Sharratt's childhood memories of her aunt's farm.

"The author says she's tired of both 'depressing, defeatist stories' about outlaw women such as Thelma and Louise, and equally tired of chick-lit books that 'find humor in presenting women as neurotic and insecure.' That's why she wanted to present heroines struggling against social strictures, strong women 'who fight for their independence against all odds … and win.'

"Sharratt's research included reading novels by fellow Minnesotans: F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. She also drew on her mother's and grandmother's stories of farm life, and she learned about life at the beginning of the century by studying pictures in the Minnesota Historical Society's photographic archive."
—Mary Ann Grossmann, St. Paul Pioneer Press

"Most small towns have manic bipolar personalities. There's the postcard veneer visible to the naked eye: the white pickets fences, the neatly-mowed lawns, the porch swings, the cheery wave of neighbors passing in the post office parking lot.

"Then there's the reality of those storybook communities, the sub-veneer that no one likes to admit but everyone likes to talk about (behind cupped hands at the church potluck, under the hairdresser's blow dryer, across the picket fence). This is the stuff of small-town gossip, the fodder for hometown legends.

"In Mary Sharratt's new novel, The Real Minerva, set in a fictional Minnesota town in 1923, the sub-veneer is squirmy and crawling with scandal. On the book's first page, we learn, "the tallest building isn't the water tower or the grain elevator but the steeple of Saint Anne's Catholic Church." Religion may loom large in Prohibition-era Minerva, Minnesota, but so do adultery, murder and several other deadly sins.

"For heaven's sake, the town even has an axe murderess — quiet, kindhearted Sadie Ostertag who chopped up her four children then tried to hang herself — though she's mainly there to serve as wallpaper since The Real Minerva centers around three other females: housemaid Barbara Niebeck who is having an affair with her employer; her 15-year-old daughter Penny who is slowly realizing her mother is much less than a saint; and the enigmatic Cora Egan who has come to Minerva, pregnant and wearing men's clothes, to escape a bad marriage in Chicago.

"The three characters' lives collide when Penny discovers her mother's infidelity and runs away to the farm outside of town where Cora's been living alone for the past several months. When Penny arrives, Cora is in the throes of childbirth. Like a plucky Laura Ingalls character, Penny helps deliver the baby, lends a hand with the farm chores, then decides to stay at the farm when she finds herself bonding with the mysterious Cora. It's not long before the older woman is teaching Penny about the ways of motherhood and how to be on guard against scheming, slimy men (like the dangerously temperamental husband she left back in Chicago).

"Meanwhile, back in town, Barbara discovers that sex can sometimes lead to love as she gradually starts responding to the affections from her boss, Laurence Hamilton, owner of the soda pop factory, Rotary Club member, singer in the Presbyterian church choir, and husband to a woman who's been in a coma for four years. Barbara scrubs floors, washes windows, does laundry and obediently responds to Laurence's midday urges. Lurking at the edges of this upstairs-downstairs drama is Hamilton's petulant 15-year-old daughter Irene whose eyes shoot daggers at Barbara whenever she's in the room. If The Real Minerva was a movie, they'd be cueing the ominous-foreshadowy music at this point.

"Sharratt sets several subplots in motion, then wisely steps back and lets them play out with a minimum of authorial intrusion. This is the kind of writing which engages the reader without word gymnastics, verbal fireworks or symphonic sentences. We have plot, we have characters and both work in harmony to drive the reader forward. Along the way, we become fully caught up in the lives of Penny, Cora and Barbara, suspecting the eventual outcome of their drama, but hoping against hope things might go differently for them.

"The Real Minerva also reminds us of how horrendously awful small-town gossip and politics can be. In the shadow of Saint Anne's steeple, wagging tongues ruin lives and alter destinies: 'The thing [Barbara] hated most about Minerva, she decided, was that everyone thought they knew you, but they saw only what fit their own notion of a person, what they were comfortable seeing.'

"Though it's set in 1920s Minnesota (a world which Sharratt brings to life with vivid detail), this novel reverberates into our 21st-century lives. Read The Real Minerva and you might find yourself thinking about your own hometown and all the intolerable human behavior that lies beneath the veneer."
—David Abrams, January Magazine

"This story of three women--a mother, her daughter and the town pariah—living in a Minnesota hamlet in 1923 is a heartfelt tale of female empowerment. . . . Fifteen-year-old Penny Niebeck is a curious, gentle girl living and working with her beautiful mother, Barbara, a cleaning woman for the privileged Hamilton family. Hardened by incest (of which Penny was the result), Barbara loves her daughter but is suspicious and cynical about human nature. She’s also having an affair with Laurence Hamilton, a relationship that disgusts Penny. Meanwhile, Penny finds "the Maagdenbergh woman," whose real name is Cora Egan, fascinating. A moneyed socialite rumored to have fled Chicago and an abusive husband, Cora dresses like a man and runs her family farm on her own—but she’s pregnant and could use a hired hand. Following a quarrel with her mother, Penny runs to Cora’s, arriving just in time to help her give birth to a baby girl. It’s the beginning of a beautiful but deeply complicated friendship, as the women’s relationships with their men take tragic turns. . . . her female characters emerge as convincingly ambivalent, yearning and sympathetic, and their emotionally satisfying, old-fashioned happy ending should be a crowd pleaser."
—Publisher's Weekly

"Set in small-town Minerva, Minnesota, in 1923, this novel is a paean to the bond between mothers and daughters, actual and otherwise. Fifteen-year-old Penny Niebeck, angry over her mother Barbara's affair with the man for whom she keeps house, takes off to become a hired girl herself for Cora Viney, who dresses in men's clothing and works her grandfather's farm alone while awaiting the birth of her child. Penny proves a lifesaver for Cora and newborn Phoebe, and her life is soon entwined with theirs until tragedy strikes at the farm and the Hamilton house. Both mothers have risen above being victimized by the men closest to them, Barbara raped by her father, who tried to drown newborn Penny, and Cora physically abused by her husband, a prominent doctor. Penny, the link between the two women, becomes both surrogate mother and daughter and is the key cause of the seemingly inevitable violent event that will shape her life. Having woven fairytales into Summit Avenue (2000), Sharratt now threads The Odyssey through this engrossing tale."

"Mary Sharratt's novel is about repression and rebirth and heroism, about the difficulty of simple living in early 20th century, rural America, about the relationship between parents and children and the nearly insurmountable obstacles that can rise up between people incapable of communicating. And it is about how a life's course can be altered irrevocably by a handful of choices. Despite the weight of the book's subject matter and the casual cruelty and violence it depicts (but does not wallow in), the story Sharratt tells is ultimately uplifting. . . . The Real Minerva is a rich, beautifully written book."
—Debra Hamel,

"It has been a long time since a novel held me shaken and breathless, riveted. The Real Minerva is an amazing novel: mythic and mysterious, sensual and compelling, deliciously suspenseful, but most of all, deeply and wisely true."
—Sandra Gulland, author of The Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun

"Welcome to Minerva, Minnesota, circa 1923, a place and time so vividly rendered, you could swear it still exists. Here, Sharratt slowly and hypnotically introduces us to three astonishing women, all struggling to reinvent themselves against the town's rigid confines--no matter what it might cost them. Evocative and mythic, with a sublime sense of good old-fashioned storytelling, The Real Minerva is wonderful."
—Caroline Leavitt, author of Girls in Trouble and the Boston Globe monthly column "A Reading Life."

"Mary Sharratt does a remarkable job of evoking a region and an era. Her period details are wonderful. Like the best writers, she knows how to find extraordinary drama in ordinary lives."
—Larry Watson, author of Orchard and Montana 1948

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